Saturday, December 26, 2015

Dreams in the Valley

Christmas started with a dream / God’s dream for you and me / Yule not find it ‘neath a tree / This dream for me and thee / Not in the stores, nor in the malls / Nor in the things of earth / The dream was meant for human heart / The birth of Christ: a Start!

God is a dreamer.

You might think that’s kind of strange.  Some would argue that God is like a clock maker who made the universe, set it in motion, and left.  Theologians tell us that God is omniscient:  God knows all; or God has a plan:  As in a game of chess, God moves us piece-like around the board, and when all is said and done: Checkmate (or Armageddon). 

But that’s not God.  When you read the scriptures, you see that God is less an architect, and more an artist.  I mean, listen to the creation story:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. The breath of God blew gently over the face of the waters …” (Genesis 1, NKJV)

That’s not the picture of an engineer looking over a set of blueprints to ascertain the structural integrity of a project. That’s the picture of an artist, working with a fresh canvass.

She looks it over, and taking a deep breath she dips her brush into the oils and begins to apply more than colors; she applies her very soul to the canvass one stroke at a time.

“In the beginning God …” is the story of an artist – a dreamer – at work.

God prepared this magnificent jewel orbiting the sun, a glorious planet with clean water, fertile land, and lush vegetation.  Living creatures of every shape and size were present.  Birds sang the sun up in the morning, and crickets sang the sun down at night.  There were no endangered species.  There were landmasses, pounding oceans, fresh-water lakes, life-sustaining rivers and streams. 

It must have taken God’s breath away the first time he stepped back to survey this wonderful work in progress.  One of the most mesmerizing pictures of the late 20th Century is that photograph of the earth rising above the surface of the moon; Earthrise, they call it.

You can almost picture the angels crowding around, noses pressed against the studio glass in hushed silence, watching God at work. 

What did God create?

God created a magnificent habitat for all – a Dream house.  God gave us a place to call home.  That was his dream.  That was his vision: to create a place where all could live in harmony with God, creation, and one another; where lion and lamb would frolic by day; where child and adder could cuddle by night.

It didn’t last long, of course. Wanting to be “like gods” we destroyed God’s dream house, trashing the environment, hunting majestic creatures into extinction, and our favorite past-time, waging war against all comers. God’s dream was shattered, like a tacky leg lamp crumpled beyond repair.

Many of our dreams lie shattered too. Pink slips are handed out at Christmas parties – shattering dreams; loved ones are killed by drunk drivers – shattering dreams; men in uniform quietly arrive on the front porch to deliver sad news from overseas – shattering dreams. For everything there is a season, but in every season: shattered dreams.

What is God to do?
Closing his eyes, God stretches out a new canvass; God begins to paint – a new hope and a new dream.  He starts with a baby in a manger in a Podunk town in a dustbin land. We can’t see it of course, but God can.

Lying there in manger rude / the child of God is born / and giving birth to hope and peace / he’s here on Christmas morn / and if we deign to shut our eyes / we’ll feel the oils applied / upon the canvass of our lives – these lives for which he died. / So come, ye faithful, raise the strain / for Christ is born – that peace o’er us may reign!

May the good Lord apply the oils of love, joy, and peace upon the canvass of your souls – the substance of hope in this, our valley – his Christmas gift to you.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Winter Comes to Jeffers

 Here is the deck at Trinity, as seen from the Parish Hall's South Entrance.

Here is Trinity as seen from the Southeast corner of the property.

Here is the church as seen from across the road. No one has plowed the parking lot. What you see is what the wind and nature have done.

Trinity, taken from a bit further North of the previous spot (gee, sounds like something a referee would say after a penalty).

The same shot, but with camera turned for more of a Portrait effect. It warrants a "meh" from my perpective. How about yours?

St. Francis has come in for the winter (as resin is apparently sensitive to the cold), and greets parishioners and guests alike.

Two more shots from the corner of Jeffers and Jeffers Loop Roads. I think I like the one above better (although I just barely lost a bit of the weather-vane atop the bell tower.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Shadows, Feet, and Refuge

Almighty God, grant us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light … (Book of Common Prayer: Collect for Advent 1)

As I have gotten older, I find I need more and better light to see what I am doing. The other day I was putting together some electronic doo-dads and gizmos for a friend. I had all the parts and I knew where everything was supposed to go, but no matter how I turned the pieces of equipment to maximize what light was available, I just couldn’t draw a bead on what I was doing.

I even tried bobbing my head up and down like a drunken pigeon, looking through every square millimeter of my eyeglasses to find some point – ANY point – where there might be a hint of things coming into focus, but it was all for naught.

Amazingly, when I have good, strong light, like with those ubiquitous LED flashlights you find everywhere, my vision improves tremendously. With enough candle-power, I can see like a teenager (albeit, a teenager with arthritis). Without those supplemental lumens, though, I’ve got the visual acuity of a bat. Sadly, I don’t have the bat’s uncanny ability to “see” with my ears. Even if I did, I’m not sure I could plug things together very well with my ears, so it’s all a moot point, anyway.

The bottom line is, I like light and find life less painful with good illumination.

One night I was away from home on business. The hotel accommodations were plush, but I wasn’t as familiar with the room as I am with my own house. I got up to enjoy a night-time pilgrimage that is required more often these days than in the past. I didn’t want to wake up the light of my life, so I padded forth bravely in the shadowy murkiness of the suite to take care of business and discerned that the foot of a chair at the end of the bed is harder than the middle toe at the end of my foot.

I don’t want to exaggerate the level of pain I experienced, but it woke up my wife. For a brief moment she thought Godzilla had made an unexpected visit to Billings and was rampaging through our room, looking to devour someone. I explained to her what had happened, which helped divert my attention from the blindingly excruciating trauma of the moment.

My wife offered to call for a toe truck, but since we didn’t have “Triple Eh” trip insurance, and since I hadn’t tripped anyway, I declined the offer. A year or so down the road the swelling and bruising have pretty well gone away; I can simulate a pretty convincing limp if the situation warrants it, although my better half suggests it is more the excuse that’s what’s limp.

Anyway, the point is, darkness is not bad in and of itself. The darkness did not stub my toe; I did. The chair did not assault me; I did it to myself. I could not blame the darkness for my injury; I could only acknowledge that I had been careless – and shall strive to be more cautious in the future.

There is an old proverb: Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. I suspect that is why we take time to decorate our homes, hang lights on our houses, and string lights on our Christmas (or “holiday”) trees. We are “putting on the armor of light” so to speak.

The problem for human-kind, however, isn’t the lack of light in the literal sense of the word. When needed, most of us can flip a switch, light a candle, or pull out a kerosene lamp (or flashlight). No, the darkness we have to watch out for is the darkness of soul.

Some people fear the dark, but I think it is fear itself that is the darkness with which we struggle. We are afraid of people and situations we don’t understand. We can light a lamp and seek to understand, or we can shut our blinds, bolt our doors, and shoot our shadows.

As for me, I prefer to take refuge in God. God chases away shadows, exposing life to experiences, situations, and people I’ve learnt to appreciate in this, our valley – much to my delight.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Lightening the Load in the Valley

“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light ...” (Episcopal Prayer Book)

It is now just about a month before Christmas. Happy Thanksgiving!

As you read this, a significant number of turkeys will have fulfilled their destinies in this mortal life, and now turkeys of another sort will begin crawling down crowded malls, creeping through crammed stores, and clicking through the world-wide-web, seeking the Reason for the Season, the Meaning of Christmas, and (maybe) “the perfect gift.”

It is a crazy time of year, and as I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate just how fast time flies. Further, I am aware of how less and less capable I am of keeping up with the frenetic pace of our world and culture. I am fully in sympathy with the character who cries out, “Stop the world; I want to get off!”

Each of us comes to this season, like Santa, with a bag full of stuff; but unlike Santa, our bags contain trash we have accumulated over the years. We’re so used to carrying it around we are unaware we even have a burden. I wonder if snails know they are hauling a house around with them. No wonder they are so sluggish.

Santa, of course, has the right idea. This is the season for lightening the load, not increasing it.

One of the perverse realities of human ingenuity is our capacity to take a good idea and twist it so badly that it is no longer good, but toxic.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive” is a wonderful truism, and yet look at what we do with it: we are wracked with guilt when we receive a gift from someone we didn’t buy a gift for; the average American (Note: singular) spends $750-950 on gifts and accessories for Christmas; and we buy gifts on credit (which means we spend money we don’t have in hand).

At the end of the day, many of us don’t feel blessed; we’re worn out and frustrated, our nerves are frazzled, and we’re about as far from “love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self” as we can get.

So what can we do?

A good friend of mine shared an outline he and his family have adopted as a means of reigning in some of the excesses of Christmas, and I would like to pass them along to you for your consideration.

The first is this: Jesus is a radically free person; he came to liberate others. To prepare for the birth of the savior, we are invited to identify what’s in the bag (more than “what’s in the box”) and eliminate everything that does not promote a life of love, joy, peace, and happiness. Start with the world’s expectation, then the expectations of others, and finally your own expectations. In other words, “Cast aside the works of darkness.”

Secondly, Jesus respects all life; he came that we might have life in its fullness. To honor the birth of the savior, we are invited to participate in activities and events that improve our relationships and personal well-being. Don’t waste precious resources on impersonal gift cards or meaningless gifts, but choose gifts that will delight both the recipient and the giver (by being meaningful, NOT by being expensive).

Thirdly, Jesus cares about all people; he came to involve himself with others. To experience the birth of the savior, we are invited to set aside the bag entirely, and invest our time in worship and in service; being truly “present” with those we visit, write, or call on during the season. We are invited to be the hands and feet of the savior during this season, visiting others with the goodness of the “real presence” of Christ.

These changes will not come easily, of course, as they fly in the face of what we have come to expect during the holidays. We may find ourselves standing alone among others who don’t understand the choices we’ve made, but by being unburdened by seasonal expectations, being intentional and thoughtful in our giving, and by being truly present with others, we can cast aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light in this, our valley. Happy Advent, folks!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Pennies From Heaven

When (self-examination, meditation, and prayer) are logically related and interwoven, the result is an unshakable foundation for life. The “Twelve and Twelve”

The other day I was merrily waltzing along the walks of downtown Ennis when I espied a shiny object on the ground. As is my custom, I bent down to get a better look, discerned it was a penny, and picked it up.

I have been told there are people who will not stoop so low as to pick up such a small sum of change, but I am not one of them. I believe pennies are more valuable than we realize. For one thing, without them, life in America would make no cents!

For another – and this is very personal and could be TMI for a family publication – but one of my earliest memories is that of being a toddler – probably two or three years of age – and finding a penny on the floor at home.

How do I remember such a small incident as that? Well, as poor as my memory often is, I recall finding the coin, picking it up with my chubby little mitts, and then gnawing on it as kids often do.

When my mother noticed how unusually quiet life was around the house, she came to investigate and noticed I was obviously enjoying chewing on something she hadn’t given me, but before she could pry open my yap, I swallowed that little Lincoln headed morsel.

I figure it must have been quite valuable, for over the next few days mother checked to see if I had processed the coin. In hindsight (you can take that any way you wish), I suspect she was concerned that it might have gotten lodged somewhere in my plumbing, so it was probably my health she was concerned about more than the coin.

To my knowledge it never passed, which may explain why later in life I chose to become a copper, but that’s another story.

Taking in money at such an early age, it is no wonder that I eventually became an ATM. I had school-aged children and hardly a day went by where they didn’t have to make a withdrawal for lunch, field trips, fund-raisers, and the like.

While I may have groused, whined, and complained, I really didn’t mind. It was always a pleasure to see them smile and hear what sounded like heart-felt thanks as they ran screaming and cheering their way out the door to catch the school-bus with their neighborhood pals.

Getting back to my tale, the point is, I cannot pass up a coin that’s lying about without picking it up. It isn’t that it will really do me much good (beyond the exertion required to bend down and rise again – a metaphor for resurrection if there ever was one), but I just can’t leave it lay, lie, or stay there.

A coin in the gutter has no value. A coin in a fountain brings luck and love – we all know that – but a bit of copper or silver lying underfoot is useless.

That’s why I can’t leave them in the street or on the sidewalk. I don’t pick them up in order to keep them, but to return them to circulation – to allow them to fulfill their destiny.

If that is true of coins, how much more so is it true of one another? There are some people you talk to and they make your feel like a million bucks. They pick you up. There are others who make you feel like the stuff my mother sifted through to find that lost treasure so long ago. I don’t know that I am often successful, but I know I would rather be the first type.

With my kids, I never felt like they took advantage; they only asked for what they needed. If I had a complaint, I thought they sometimes asked too little of me (but I kept that concern to myself); when I was able to, I would try to give them extra, “just in case,” and if they didn’t need the extra, I’d let them keep it, “just because.”

We’re all pennies from heaven – coins of the realm. We are tokens of God’s love; God picks us up, cleans us off, and sends us out with joy to fulfill our destinies in this, our valley.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Miss Adventures

Better to do one thing supremely well than many badly. Anonymous

I stepped over to the trash can in the kitchen and dropped a cupcake paper into it. To my amazement, it missed the opening and fell to the floor, where I had to pick it up and try, more successfully, to toss it into the bin. Two-time’s the charm, I noted.

A bit later I tossed a used tissue into the trash and, like its paper cousin, it went straight to the floor, rather than into the receptacle. Once again I found myself trundling off into the kitchen to retrieve the wayward wad of detritus, putting it more directly into its intended repository.

Being of scientific bent – or at least having bent over a number of times I’d have preferred not to – I proceeded to contemplate the reasons for my kitchen trash can to repel everything I was tossing its way.

The fact is I have an infuriating habit of routinely missing targets. Even when I stand directly over the dust bin to drop something in, it goes astray. A tiny piece of it will stick to my thumb or finger and as soon as I let go – bombs away – it veers off target and hits the floor.

My aim is so bad I am truly amazed I have never been nominated for “Miss” America. When it comes to missing, I am not only a professional, but in a class all my own.

Speaking of class, when I was in school, it was not unusual to miss a class every now and then. And when I attended class, it wasn’t unusual for me to miss the point of my being there. These days it would be called hyperactive attention deficit disorder, but in my day it was called Not Paying Attention. Fortunately, I was never sent to the principal’s office; I was too principled for that.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I did get called to the principal’s office once. A neighborhood busy-body had gone to the school to report I had been throwing rocks at a house. Her claim (and this is true) was completely false!

I should probably explain.

The day before this most unpleasant (and unfounded) inquisition, my brother and I and our good friend Mark had been killing time a few blocks from home, engaged in a conversation, the substance of which eludes me now.

As we chatted, we picked up grains of sands (and I am not exaggerating – nothing larger than a bb gun BB) and were mindlessly tossing them against a rockery beside which we were standing and talking.

As we yakked, this woman came screeching to a halt in her Cadillac, jumped out like an Imperial Storm Trooper, and screamed, “What are you hooligans doing?”

Well, both Mark and my brother took off running in different directions (doing a three minute mile, I might add), leaving me to stand there alone with Darth Vader’s older sister.

I told her we weren’t doing anything, but when she saw my companions doing an imitation of the Pamplona Bull Run, she presumed the worst, and so she asked my name, what school I went to, and insisted we were throwing rocks at the house on the other side of the wall (a claim I most vehemently denied. Besides, if I had been, I would have missed anyway. So: No Harm, No Foul – Right?).

She told me she was a good friend of my principal, and assured me I hadn’t heard the last of this incident, which was true.

The next day I was called into the principal’s office, and there she sat in the corner, smirking like the proverbial cat with bird in maw. In a matter of seconds, I explained what my brother, friend, and I had been doing (using small words so Miss Nosey would understand), protested my innocence clearly and unequivocally, and after about ten seconds of deliberations, was allowed to return to class completely vindicated of any and all wrong-doing.

I had told the truth, and being innocent, I couldn’t miss being acquitted. I learned that from watching Perry Mason – a show our family would never miss.

Momma always said, “When you tell the truth, you don’t have to have a good memory.” That is “can’t miss” advice in this, our valley.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Shoe Falls in the Valley

It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us – The “Twelve and Twelve” (p. 90)

Autumn is the season when pests begin migrating into places they just do not belong. Not all pests were created equal, of course. I am still allowed to frequent homes, medical centers, businesses, and the like without too many complaints. But still, there are other vermin that can be quite annoying, and it affects my psyche more than I would like to admit.

The other day I was on a hospital visit and a young lady jumped up from her chair while we conversed. I gave her one of my inquisitive looks – the one with head cocked, one eyebrow raised, and complete, total, and utter confusion written upon my face. She said, “There’s a spider.”

I looked and, sure enough, there was one of those little brown critters hiding in the shadow where the wall and floor meet. Remarkably, I kept my poise, for I have found little alarms a patient more than a priest who goes running from a room screaming like a little girl (meaning no offense to little girls, by the way).

This was quite ironic as I had awakened just hours earlier from a nightmare in which there were spiders crawling all over me (and the more I brushed them off, the more they multiplied in horrendous fashion). I wondered: Was this a coincidence or a prophecy?

To play it safe, I asked the young lass if she planned on doing something about the spider. I wasn’t being timorous or coy, by the way. I am simply a non-chauvinist and wanted to give her first dibs tackling this unwanted visitor (I’m referring to the spider).

She returned a look that can only be described as one-degree short of calling for a SWAT team (or Seal Team Six, if they were available), so I offered to take care of the problem and asked her for a paper towel.

She handed me a massive fistful of paper, from which I deduced she also retains a plethora of banana clips and ammo for her Uzi. I thanked her for her generosity and assured her that one towel would be sufficient to handle the arachnoid menace.

Having developed most of my hunting skills from regularly reading Art Kehler’s Hollow Top Smoke Signals, I slowly and stealthily moved my companion’s chair out of the way. I wanted nothing to slow me down once I launched my arach-attack. It’s a good thing I did, too, for no sooner had I begun to approach that little brown beastie, she discerned my intentions and made a run for it. Suddenly, it was Speedy Gonzales vs. Elmer Fudd!

Not to be outpaced, outwitted, or outmaneuvered by this dreadful denizen of the dark, this fleet-footed skittering skedaddler, I instantaneously intuited where she was heading (to avoid death by alliteration, I presume), and dispatched her to the Great Flytrap in the Sky (with a mighty smoosh), where she has no doubt sprouted wings and is now scaring the perdition out of unsuspecting angels.

The question that most naturally comes to mind is why such a little thing as a spider would scare those of us who are so much bigger.

I consider myself  quite the man’s man; I don’t even bother carrying bear spray with me in the woods – for one thing, I make it a point to stay out of the wilderness, but when I DO go hiking, I make sure I have someone with me I can outrun. That’s why they say there is safety in numbers, don’t you know.

But little things like spiders are simply and irrationally scary. I remember getting dressed one morning as a child and having this big gorilla-sized tarantula (or a near relative) climb out of my shoe as I prepared to put it on. I must have lost ten pounds right then and there! Of course, I annihilated the eight-legger with the aforementioned shoe.

Over time, I have learned to overcome some of those things that used to bug me badly. Facing one’s fears and overcoming them helps build the confidence we need to adapt to our ever-changing environment.

I’ve learned to walk softly in this, our valley (but I still carry a big shoe, just in case).

Monday, October 5, 2015

Creating a Person

I normally don't publish my sermons as they tend to be notes from which I speak (and often deviate, as I speak to several different congregations each week), but was asked if I would provide my sermon notes for October 4 (Proper 22). The matter before us was Jesus' answer to the Pharisees regarding marriage and divorce. I didn't say all I could have on the subject, but shared the following insights I have gleaned over the past 30 years of preaching. Interestingly, since diocesan convention normally falls on this weekend, my notes indicated I had never before actually preached on this subject! So this was new for me. I hope you find it useful.

In 1974, I became a police officer in Spokane, WA. My degree from WSU was in Police Science & Administration. Spokane was a relatively small department – about 100 officers +/-. It was like a large extended family.

Near the end of my first year, I was ready to buy a house. I didn’t want to live in an apartment. I hadn’t really saved much money for a down payment, but Lt. McGooghan was buying a larger home for his growing family – something more in keeping with his lieutenant’s salary – so I bought his house. We made a little side deal where he gave me a receipt for a down payment I didn’t have, allowing the bank loan to go through, and I paid it off over the course of the next few months. He didn’t do it because he was rich; I had SPs on my collars, and that made me family, and that’s what families do. Message: You Belong! Writ large.

Contrast: In my early days on the department I became friends with another officer – Sergeant Lou Moss. He worked out of the Young People’s Bureau, dealing with juvenile offenders, truants, run-aways – anything involving children. Over time I discovered he was an Episcopalian, but he hadn’t been to church since the late 50s. I asked him why and he said he and his wife got a divorce in 1958, and the priest there made it clear he was no longer able to receive communion. He could come to worship, but he could no longer participate in the table fellowship.

I told him times had changed and that I knew he’d be welcomed at our little church out in the Spokane Valley but, “No, that’s OK.” He hadn’t lost his faith in God, but for him, the church had taken a leaf out of the table, squeezed the ends together and said, “We no longer have a place for you.”
Message: You Don't Belong! Writ large.

The GOOD NEWS for us is that the church has changed over the past 50 years or so, but for those of us who came from broken families or who have experienced the heartache of divorce, the Gospel lesson this morning must be really hard to hear.

Jesus’ words seem unusually harsh and cruel. The temptation will be to say they came out of a different era in a different time and are no longer relevant, but I’d like to suggest that what he has to say is very relevant, very timely, and very important for us to hear.

11)      It is true that our cultures are different, so we need to recognize that. Divorce in America is VERY different from divorce in 1st century Israel. Women and children were property, in Jesus’ day; for a woman to divorce a man was inconceivable. Property cannot disown its owner, but an owner can disown his property. There were no divorce courts; there was no such thing as alimony or child support. A man would simply hand his wife a note saying, “Get out!” and that was that. A divorced woman had limited options: Move back with family, become a beggar, a slave, or a prostitute.

      Jesus said, “That’s got to stop. Women aren’t property; women aren’t chattel; they are people; they are your equals; Treat them like it, for heaven’s sake!” He points to Genesis and reminds us that God created us – all of us: male and female, Jew and Greek, Slave and Free – in God’s image (mashing what Jesus said here with what Paul says in Galatians). That’s why we, in our Church’s teaching, promise to “respect the dignity of every person.” Jesus isn’t talking about divorce, but personhood – and is challenging all the things we do that are hurtful to one another.

22)      That brings me to the second point. Jesus tells us the issue has nothing to do with marriage or divorce, but the human heart. “The problem,” he says, “is your hardness of heart.” Is it possible Jesus is looking back on his own family history? Joseph was a “righteous man” – a Tzadik. He’s a man who knows the LAW (Torah). Mary’s pregnant. Options: Rock, Scissors, Paper. Angel: Don’t be afraid to take her under your wing! He can do the right thing, or he can do the RIGHT thing.

3) Now, here, today, God looks at us. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. All of us have heart problems. Maybe too small (Grinch) or blocked arteries, causing pain & shortness of breath. God can kill us all, OR … Jesus took up some children, held them in his arms, and … He blessed them. 

Our options: We can take up arms (with one another) or we can take one another up IN arms. Jesus calls for the Tzadik in each of us, and THAT’s the Jesus way to be in the family way. Let us Pray (BCP 101)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Loose Moose

Worldly worry always seeks to lead a human being into the small-minded unrest of comparisons, away from the lofty calmness of simple thoughts. Soren Kierkegaard

My wife and I were out for a walk the other day and had just about returned home when a passing motorist warned us to be careful as there was a mother moose and her calf just a few doors up the street. Being the nature lover that I am, and knowing there is nothing more dangerous than a wild animal protecting her off-spring, I decided immediately to go check it out.

We figuratively flew into the house (as I would never “literally” run), where I grabbed my camera so I could digitally chronicle our latest adventure. Yes, the Call of the Wild beckons, and woe betide the one who misfortunately deigns to get in the way!

We hopped into our car (more like a tin box on roller skates than armored personnel carrier, but (alas) it is what it is). I was confidant it would give us time to vamoose if things got ugly (and, yes, moose ARE fairly ugly, to be sure). I was also pretty sure the momma moose would have to stop laughing before she could give chase for the sake of her darling little baby, so there WAS that.

It seemed awfully silly to drive a hundred feet or so from our house to where the moose were purported to be cavorting (yet, it really was the wise thing to do), and lo and behold: there they were! The good news is that both creatures were relaxing well off the road, so danger was pretty minimal.

My camera has a decent telephoto lens, so I was able to snap a few shots that, for an action junkie like me, were pretty snooze-inducing. Still, there is no thrill like seeing a moose up close and personal.

It was ironic as we’d gone out on what I had intended to be a “photo safari” a day or so earlier, always on the hunt for breath-taking scenery and creatures of the wild, but had been pretty much skunked on both counts. Much to our disappointment, there just wasn’t anything “out there” to be captured on film or memory card.

Instead, it turned out we had to come home to capture the excitement of real life critters that amuse, (a-moose?), and amaze.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised, of course. We have it on good authority by no less a figure than Dorothy that “there is no place like home.” She said it, I believe it, and so that settles it! Unfortunately, there were no lions, tigers, or bears (oh my), but there was the moose, and that, as they say, was that.

Life is funny that way; it seems we humans go looking for fun and exhilaration – searching high and low, hither, thither, and yon – while the greatest delights are so often to be found right here where we dwell.

When all the excitement was over and world order restored, I found myself looking back on all we had seen and done and discerned that there was one thing that had been left undone – one thing left untended in all the hub-bub and unbridled haste with which we had scrambled to “get our shot” – the kindness of a stranger – a neighbor – who had bothered to stop and warn us of danger lying unseen around a corner.

I am sure she does not think of herself as an angel of mercy or a messenger sent by God, yet she demonstrated that very characteristic by which the people of God are often measured: thoughtfulness and compassion. She did not drive past, she slowed and stopped; she didn’t stop, pull out her cell-phone, and prepare to capture the potential carnage for the evening news, she warned us of the dangers.

I am sure we thanked her for the alert, but in our haste I am just as sure my thoughts were more about getting my camera than a heart-felt appreciation that we have such a good neighbor (and live in a community filled with such good neighbors).

I don’t know who our benefactor is or was, but I do want her to know that I appreciate what she did. The Lord smiles upon her in this, our valley – of that I’m very sure!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Stepping High in the Valley

Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest – Psalm 55

The other day I was walking back to the church from the Post Office in Virginia City when I caught my toe on a bit of planking. I am normally pretty careful when walking on uneven surfaces, but somehow the beautiful weather had distracted me and soon I found myself pirouetting along the board-walk, making every effort not to become “one with the wood.”

I am glad to report that I survived the incident. In fact, not only did I remain upright, but I found myself laughing hysterically the rest of the way back to the church. I don’t know if anyone saw me (or heard me) – and if they had, they may well have looked to see if Cirque de Solei was in town – but no, I looked the Grim Creeper in the face, and I lived to tell about it, and if that wasn’t worth a hoot and a holler, I don’t know what is.

I think it is important to be able to laugh at oneself. I am not the most graceful biped around, as it is, so I have learned not to take myself too seriously.

One day I was serving communion and found the going slower and tougher. Wondering why I was struggling so hard to deliver the sacrament to the faithful, I looked down and discovered my cincture (the rope clergy wear around their robes) had come loose; it was wrapped around my knees and ankles.

Now, if that didn’t beat all! I simply shook my legs a bit and let the rope fall to the ground, stepped out, and continued to serve communion sans girdle: Problem solved!

I like to think of myself as a problem solver. Among my favorite movie lines is the one in Apollo 13 where Gene Kranz (played by actor Ed Harris) barks out: “Let’s work the problem, folks!” There’s no use panicking, it seems, until it is time to panic. Until then: stay calm, identify the problem, and then apply the solutions as they’re identified.

Not every solution is a good solution, of course. I am reminded of NASA’s (allegedly) spending millions to develop a pen that would work in zero gravity. Meanwhile, the Russians found pencils worked just fine. Uff da!

Sometimes my explorations get the better of me. The other day I bought a new computer to replace my old laptop (which was getting a bit dodgy). I got it home and, without going into too many details, managed to kill it – turning it into a $400 paper weight. I tried everything I knew from my twenty plus years of working on computers to bring it back to life, but all to no avail. I could hear Death chuckling quietly off in a corner of the living room.

I finally decided to swallow my pride and called Tech Support. The dude on the other end asked me to unplug the laptop, wait a moment, and then plug it back in.

Through all my years of working and playing with electrical devices, the first thing one is ALWAYS supposed to do is unplug the item, wait a moment, plug it back in, and see what it does. A laptop has a battery, so it never even occurred to me to unplug it, but … that’s all it took to restore the computer to life and full functionality. Uff da (again)!

It would have been very foolish to have not reached out for help (and goodness knows I can be the fool at times), and in the end, it was very much worth it. The solution was easy, but only in hindsight did it become obvious.

That’s just the way life is. I may not be all that graceful on my feet, but I do want to learn how to be filled with grace in my life and relationships.

I have learned that when I get tripped up, I can blame the hazard, I can blame my clumsiness, or I can remember to pay attention. As someone once said, we often fix blame, but it is better to fix the problem – so I choose to fix problems; that makes my walk much smoother in this, our valley (while Death whimpers alone in a corner). 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Away From the Valley

Your throne, O God, endures forever. Psalm 45

Barb and I are finally home from our summer vacation. We’d gone over to the Seattle area to visit our kids and family, see the sights, and enjoy a little R&R from the daily grind of living in paradise.

Despite the fires in the state of Washington, our trip west hadn’t been too bad. The air was a bit hazy, but the fires hadn’t reached their peak yet. The weather was typically hot as we began our excursion in the heady dog days of summer. We spent the first night in Wenatchee, taking a break from the drive and wanting to enjoy the glorious trip through Stevens Pass during the cooler, prettier hours of morning.

It was late afternoon when we found a motel in which to spend the night, but the room wasn’t ready. The desk clerk suggested we could go get a bite to eat and come back, if we were hungry. Since being hungry is my normal state of being (the chief means of determining at any time whether or not I am alive and/or awake) we decided we could do that. The hotelier suggested a couple of options a “block or two away”, so we decided to hoof it (and give my fitness tracker something to count).

Well, I hate to complain or suggest the folks in Wenatchee have a wicked sense of humor or lack of understanding of what entails a block or two, but we walked for a while and never came close to the suggested eateries, whereupon we turned around, hiked back to the hotel, got into the car, and made the journey the old fashioned way (by horseless carriage). Did I mention we were near triple digits and Amazonian Rain Forest levels of humidity?

Well, we finally got our meal (which was served at a glacially slow pace), returned once again to the hotel where we secured our room, and melted into a puddle of goo that was eventually restored to human form the next morning around dawn. We ate the rubber-egg and smelly-foot sausage breakfast they had prepared for their guests, then checked out and hit the road. To borrow a line from my good friend Bill over in Virginia City, we decided the best view of Wenatchee is from the rear view mirror of the car.

Anyway, we continued our journey traveling across the Cascade Mountains through Stevens Pass, which is one of the prettiest drives one can imagine. Highway 2 is a cute little two-lane blacktop that winds though the forested hills along the Wenatchee River and passing though such quaint villages as Cashmere and Leavenworth on the up-drive, and then down the west side of the pass through Monroe and on into Everett.

One of the things that makes the route so delightful, beyond the sheer beauty and majesty of the Alpine-like peaks and valleys, is the fact that so few people travel the old highway. Most folks cross the state down along Interstate 90, and why not? It’s a lot faster, there are more lanes to choose from, and it is easier to get around all the big rigs and campers that clog the roads in summertime.

While speed is nice, and lord knows my foot gets heavier on the accelerator the closer I get to my destination, the plain fact of the matter is I enjoy the more leisurely pace of the old highways; I enjoy passing through the small towns and villages that dot the landscape, providing victuals for the weary traveler, places to gas up the car, and shops in which one can while away the time checking out locally grown or crafted goodies.

I like a road that actually requires a driver to actually “drive” – accelerating, decelerating, and steering around bends, curves, and blind spots; watching for wildlife and hikers alike; climbing up into the bright sunlight on the hills, and down into the valleys with their dark shadows. Now THAT is driving!

At the end of the highway, of course, was our destination. Our trip didn’t end there, naturally; it had really only just begun. And that is a parable of life, isn’t it? We are always on a journey, and even when we arrive, there is still more that lies before us, and that’s when the fun really begins in this, our valley – and beyond.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Zen in the Valley

You (O Lord) are justified when you speak and upright in your judgment. Psalm 51:5

The deer have been mostly absent from our yard this summer. During the winter we see them at least three times a day; they seem to come grazing through for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In early summer we don’t see them nearly as often as they must have better places to go, have their babies, and eat. Now that summer is two thirds over and the fawns are a bit larger and stronger, the deer are back to their old grazing habits.

Our back yard seems to serve three primary purposes for the local deer-herd. First, they enjoy eating the grass, which must be quite satisfying to them, as we do everything we can to keep it lush and green.

They use our lawn upon which to bed down for their afternoon siestas – again, because they must find it soft, cool, and comfortable in the mid-day heat of summer. And why not? We keep it well watered, so the ground is soft, and I set the mower blades a bit higher than I prefer, because it is better for the grass not to be chopped as low as I would do it if I wanted it to look well-manicured.

Finally, they use our lawn as their own personal litter box, which is unsightly (and seems quite unsanitary). I’m not overly fond of having to clean up after them, but it is what it is, so we each do our part and life goes on.

Meanwhile, I am happy to report that my Valley Girl tomatoes are doing better than they were the last time I spoke of them. A month or so ago I had written of my disappointment with her woeful lack of production of tomatoes. At that time there had only been three tomatoes that had bothered to show themselves to this novice gardener. Today there are at least eight, and a few are beginning to show signs of some color other than green.

Of course, they will no doubt ripen while I am away on vacation. Fortunately, I have asked a couple to babysit Valley Girl for us, so they will be free to take advantage of these locally grown and harvested delights. I am hoping production will continue past our return, at which time I shall hope to provide you with a full and complete update on their health status and taste.

On another note, it seems traffic has been much heavier than in my previous summers here in the Madison and Ruby Valleys (and points in between). I am wondering if our Fisherman triangle in Ennis shouldn’t be converted into a traffic circle.

I know people complain about such circles as being confusing, but that is simply because we don’t have enough of them in this area for drivers to “get used to” them. They are really much more efficient at enhancing traffic flow than intersections with traffic signals (and does anyone REALLY want signal-lights in Ennis at the Y?).

If you have been reading this column thus far, you’re probably wondering what deer, tomatoes, and traffic lights have to do with life and faith – the raison d’etre of This, Our Valley.

The answer is a simple: Nothing!

While I generally try to have a reason or focus behind each column I write, every now and then I just like to go with the flow, and see where the flow takes me. I am not very Zenful, and yet every now and then a bit of the Zen universe will touch me – or tackle me – and what can I do but live in the now and confess that not everything that happens has a purpose upon which to propound.

In some ways, life for the sake of life is its own purpose. There is no higher calling than to live in the here and now, for there really is no other time. There is no future / there is only now / there is no past / just our memories, holy cow!

The point is: the deer, tomatoes, and traffic do their thing, and there is nothing intrinsically moral or immoral – good or bad – evil or holy about any of it. They simply “are” – and I enjoy keeping an eye on them in this, our valley.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Curious Sight in the Valley

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle ... – Jesus

One morning Barb and I were sitting in our living room enjoying a cup of coffee when we looked outside and saw a car slow down to a crawl in front of our house. The occupants were chattering excitedly and pointing at the house and I wondered if they were staring at us, as we were not exactly dressed for company.

I knew from experience that was not the case as our windows have a reflective quality about them that makes it difficult to peer inside from outside during daylight hours. Still, their staring made me a bit self-conscious and curious, so I stepped over to the window and glanced outside, but I could see nothing noteworthy in our yard making a slow-drive-by necessary.

The car moved on and as it did so I stepped closer to the window and noted a fawn resting peaceably right below our window. THAT’s what the folks were looking at! Now it made sense.

I was correct thinking it couldn’t be us; I knew it couldn’t be our landscaping (if you can call what we have out front “landscaping” to begin with); and I was pretty sure it wasn’t our log-sided house which, while nice, is nothing to write home about. There was simply something out of our view that was attracting attention, and until we were willing to either step closer to the window or actually go outside, we would never have known it was there.

I wonder what we can learn about ourselves and about life in general from this. What leapt to mind for me was the matter of racism about which we’ve been hearing so much lately. Most of us live within the context of our own skin, and so it is hard to imagine life within the realm of someone else’s experience.

I am a white man, but I never think about being white, nor about being a man. I’m simply me. I am the only person I’ve known as well as I know me (and I confuse myself a lot, even at that).

I would love to think I haven’t got a racist bone in my body and yet I know that when I speak, I inevitably display all sorts of ignorance and stupidity with regards to other people. That’s normal, so one shouldn’t be afraid to admit it.

I know it irritates me when I read or see in the news that “a black man was shot by …” I wonder why they can’t simply report that a man was shot. Is there an ulterior motive in identifying the race?

No; I do not think that identifying race is part of some liberal agenda or storyline the media are trying to perpetuate. Like it or not, statistics help identify trends or issues that might otherwise be lost in the cloud – allowing injustices to continue unexamined and unabated.

One key to getting along better with one another is to avoid denying that we are different – all of us. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your thoughts mine,” says the Lord, so maybe we ought to be honest enough to admit it.

Not all cultures are the same, whether at home or abroad.

I grew up in the north, but I love grits. Many people don’t know what grits are, and so are reluctant to give them a try or, having tried them decided they aren’t their cup of tea. That’s fine. Having good taste doesn’t make me better than you (tongue placed firmly in cheek) – just different.

One day some years ago I made reference to “Orientals” in a sermon. I was told afterwards that the proper term is “Asians.” I am not big on political correctness, but I do strive to be sensitive and inoffensive. My friend corrected me gently, not harshly, and I found that helpful.

When challenged to respect the dignity of every person, it is helpful to be gentle, for upon the foundation of gentleness we can build relationships that improve life for all. Being aware that others often see, feel, and experience what we ourselves cannot or do not, perhaps we can be humble enough to step up to the window with less judgment in this, our valley.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Soaring in the Valley

Behold the birds of the air; they do not sow, reap, or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? – Jesus

I was driving over the Norris Hill with a friend and looking high above the hill we saw a flock of large, white birds flying around quite aimlessly. Manny gazed at them for a moment and said, “There’s a flock of pelicans up there.” He paused and added, “… they just seem to love to fly, don’t they?”

I peered up at the aerialists and had to agree. They were not flying south for the winter or north for the summer; they didn’t appear to be looking for the river or lake, nor did they seem to be on the hunt for food. They were in a formation of sorts. That is, they were flying loosely together in one direction and then another, but their turns were slow and lazy, and not quite in sync with one another if one was expecting the military precision of the Blue Angels, but certainly their aerial choreography had a sweet rhythm to it.

As we climbed the hill heading home toward Ennis I could see they were enjoying the thermal drafts carrying them up; when they got as high as they felt appropriate they turned and began their slow spiral back to a lower altitude and then, once again, they would find a draft to carry them high aloft for another ride into the wild blue yonder.

Looking back on that trip, I couldn’t help but recall Jesus’ remark about birds. They do not plant, nor do they reap, nor do they store up in barns or fruit cellars, and yet God takes care of them just fine.

That doesn’t mean birds don’t have to work for their supper, of course. Pelicans have to go fishing, robins have to go worming, and hummingbirds seek nectar. All creatures, including sloths and nematodes have to take care of themselves for the sake of survival. The point is they don’t seem to fret over it.

Out on my deck I have a Valley Girl tomato plant I bought at the Farmer’s Market in town one recent Saturday. She had some nice flowers in June and today has three tomatoes. I was disappointed in the numbers as I was hoping for more. I wondered if I should have gotten several plants; maybe she craves company. She has a wonderful home and, when I caught a deer trying to make a meal of her I chased it off the deck and blocked the stairway. I have become quite maternal over my baby (and her babies).

I keep an eye on her soil and see to it she has the water she needs; I protect her from predators and the wind; I chat with her each day to see how she is doing. I have also gone online to research tomato basics to ensure I am meeting her needs.

Growing up I was taught to remove suckers from tomato plants but learned it is better to leave them alone. They do not steal nutrients but will produce fruit of their own – I did not know that!

So, if I – the poster child for Brown-Thumb-Gardeners – can figure how to take care of a silly little tomato plant, how much more is God – the Author-and-Giver-of-Life – able to take care of the silly little creatures we are?

Like the birds, we each need to do our part to make sure there is food on the table and a roof over our heads. I believe God created us to be creative and productive; I also know that not all “fear and anxiety” is created equal – some of us suffer from mental health disorders of which fear and anxiety is a part.

Jesus was not addressing mental illness, but the sin of avarice – greed – which steals our joy because we fear losing what we have and believe we need to have even more in order to “be” happy.

To we avaricious types (and that afflicts most of us, I suspect) Jesus says, “Look at the Pelicans. With their wings they rise on thermals and return safely to the earth. They let go, and they let God.”

I want to fill my wings with God in this, our valley.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Bullets in the Valley

The kingdom suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. Jesus

For the past few weeks I have been in beautiful downtown Salt Lake City for our church’s national convention. We meet every three years to see where we are, look to where we’re headed, and discerning what we need to do to get there.

I have been impressed with a number of things about both the convention, which was being held at the Salt Palace Convention Center, and the city. Our motel was only four blocks from the Palace, but the blocks here are humungous. Apparently they are each an acre as the city founders wanted everyone to have space for a garden.

The streets are also very wide as the city planners, led by Brigham Young, did not want drivers to be tempted to curse while turning or maneuvering their horse drawn wagons. The best part of all this was that I really got to put my new fitness trainer to work counting steps and stairs as I chose to walk rather than availing myself of the shuttle. There were a few days in which that seemed less than wise as temperatures hit triple digits, but I survived and felt pretty good in the process.

One of the non-convention events I participated in was a march against gun-violence. There were about 1,500 to 2,000 people gathered for the march; we were led by the bishop of Utah, Scott Hayashi (who was nearly killed as a young man when he was shot by a robber while working the counter at a convenience store), and marched from the Salt Palace to Pioneer Park and back.

The point of the march was not to promote the end of gun ownership, but to encourage folks to seek solutions to the epidemic of gun violence. Simple laws requiring universal back-ground checks, cooling-off periods, gun registrations, and the like have been shown to be effective in reducing gun-violence in states that enact those laws. They don’t eliminate gun violence, but they do reduce the number of deaths and injuries.

If all life matters, and I believe it does, then doesn’t it make sense to work together to address the problems directly and find solutions?

I have never been shot, but I have been shot at. I stood on the fire escape of an old flea-bag motel in Spokane – I was a cop back then – and watched the muzzle blast of a handgun fired through the window while the bullet went whizzing past me. The gunman was a fellow with mental health problems; he then turned the gun on himself, ending the standoff.

Winston Churchill once confessed that there is nothing as exhilarating as being shot at and missed, and I agree.

Another time I stepped into the back yard of a home where a counselor was asking for help with a troubled client. As I passed through a low opening in the hedge surrounding the yard, I found myself standing twenty feet from a young man holding a 30-30 lever action rifle. If he had wanted to, he could easily have taken me out. Instead, he chose to end his own life right then and there (and I am still haunted by the memories of that most tragic event).

No one believes laws will prevent firearms from getting into the hands of criminals, but criminals aren’t the only people using guns in acts of violence. Of the 30,000 gun-related deaths each year, about a third are homicides, while two thirds are suicides (with a smattering of accidents and unintentional fatalities recorded each year). That coincided with my experience.

I know that gun ownership does save lives occasionally. I saw a report just the other day of a former CNN reporter and her husband being robbed at gun-point in their motel room. The couple were armed, a gun-fight broke out in which the robber was killed. The husband suffered a gun-shot wound in the melee, but he (and his wife) survived.

Jesus recognized the human propensity to solve problems with violence and power. Human history shows us just how ineffective that route can be to bringing about peace.

If life matters, and I think it does, perhaps it is time to turn down the rhetoric and lower our voices, and to start talking with one another here in this, God’s Valley. There has simply GOT to be another way.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Chirps in the Valley

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love … Book of Common Prayer

I woke up this morning just before dawn; I was awakened by the cheerful chirping of a local bird. Not being an ornithologist, I don’t know what it was, but it was making me an ornery-thologist. I really wasn’t in a mood to open my peepers at four o’clock in the a.m.

Why on earth would a bird be singing at that hour of the morning? Is she singing praises to Brother Sun for his rising, and Sister Moon for her bedding down? Is she screaming at the chicks to get a move on (to catch the proverbial worm), or warning the aforementioned worms to head for shelter? Or is it simply a matter of instinct and tradition – chirping away at the break of day because that’s what all her feathery ancestors have done from time immemorial?

The reasons probably don’t matter. What’s interesting, though, is that I heard the bird at all. I have discovered that my hearing is no longer all it was cracked up to be (good egg that I am), and was never all that good to begin with. I depend on people speaking to me clearly, with good enunciation, pronunciation, pace and volume.

For those who’ve grown up in the Valley Girl era, enunciation has become a lost art (and I’m not just being a cranky old coot when I say that). People slur their words, drop syllables and consonants, and end sentences on an uptalk, so statements often sound like questions. They also tend to over-use the word “like” so that everything, like, becomes metaphorical if taken, like, literally.

I complain, but it isn’t because of the dialect. I think dialects are cool. The issue for me isn’t what they say or how they say it, but rather that I have trouble understanding what is being said. The problem is mine; the frustration is mine; the lack of skillful hearing is mine; the presbyotic ears are mine (and yes, presbyotic is a word – it means old ears, referring to the decline of hearing that occurs with advancing age).

The solution, of course, would be to run into the local hearing center, have my ears tested, and perhaps being fitted for hearing aids. To do that, however, would require several things. First would be a desire to hear something. Those “somethings” might include things like my spouse or the television. Well believe me; they’ve both got lots of unused volume left, so I am not sure that’s an issue.

Second would be a decision to spend money fixing my problem when it would be so much easier if the mumbling world would only learn to SPEAK UP!

I mean, if our computers and typewriters have Caps-Locks, why can’t we just ask people to use their vocal Caps-Locks when talking to one another? Oh sure, it might sound like we’re all mad and it could lead to disagreements and fights, but isn’t that better than being bored by a case of the incomprehensibles?

Maybe I should just admit I am getting older, but I’m not sure I am ready to take the leap into hearing aids, even if they might help me to hear and understand the world around me better – just as eyeglasses keep me from walking into poles, driving into tourists (I would never think of running over most of the locals), or mistaking inanimate object for people a la Mr. Magoo.

I will confess that not everything I fail to hear is caused by a hearing loss; sometimes it is caused by hearing too much. I occasionally suffer from an auditory overload. When I am writing, for instance, I need quiet. I cannot write with music playing or the television on in the background. I know there are folks who are the complete opposite – who need the background noise if they are going to concentrate, but I am not one of them.

For me, Silence truly IS golden; I treasure it with all my heart; a Miranda warning’s unnecessary, for I’ve turned silence into an art!

As long as the chirps of the birds continue to wake me up at the crack of the dawn, I think I’ve still got time to be cheap in this, our presbyotic valley. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Parking in the Valley

I don’t much like God when he gets under a roof. John Wayne

My wife and I were driving into Bozeman the other day to take care of some errands. I needed to stop at a shop downtown and was fretting over whether or not there would be parking close by. I don’t know why that would worry me so; I’ve lived in and around towns like Seattle, Detroit, and San Francisco and, believe me, parking anywhere in Bozeman is a snap.

Never-the-less, I fret over such simple matters for little or no reason. It isn’t rational; it’s just the way I am wired.

So it was very much to my delight and surprise that God answered my unasked prayer and provided a parking spot right in front of the business into which I was going to pop. I swung my little beater into the spacious slot – didn’t even have to do any parallel parking maneuvers – and was quite pleased with myself and with God (who had anticipated my need and desire with exquisite timing and precision).

As I was straightening the car out, however, my better half pointed out a car on the street had her backup lights on and, apparently, had intended to back into the spot I had just filled.

Without thinking (well, that’s not true; I did go through about a nanosecond of contemplation) I put on my signal and began to vacate the parking space.

At that exact moment I saw the car door fly open like the escape hatch to an F-1 fighter. The driver’s eyes were aflame and riveted on me like a mongoose on a cobra. We locked peepers long enough for the smooth second hand action of a Swiss watch to move half a hair’s breadth, at which point she looked down and saw something for which she was completely unprepared.

I swept my right hand in a grand arc, inviting her to take the space I was in the process of vacating. You see, I don’t steal spaces. It wasn’t a matter of first-come-first-serve, or you-snooze-you-lose; I had simply focused on grabbing a spot and when I realized I had unintentionally outmaneuvered a competitor, I chose the more gallant, noble course and let her have it (only noting later she was ready to let ME have it – and I don’t mean the space).

As she parked her car, I crossed the road (about fifty more feet in all) and grabbed a spot that was nearly as close and no less convenient in the larger scheme of things. Furthermore, it meant I could add some steps to my day, inching closer to my “ten thousand steps per day” goal. So it turned out to be a win-win for everyone.

I’m not sure why people get upset about things like parking places. I find it better, overall, to yield to the needs of others (real or imagined) and less so to the gratification of my own ego or desires.

It is nice to park close when one is in a hurry, I admit, but the difference between one spot and another is generally pretty miniscule.

As I thought about the incident, it occurred to me that I was being judged, not by my intentions, but by my actions. And isn’t that always the way? No one cares what a person’s intentions are; what matters is what we do. If we make a mistake, do we own it and apologize for it, or do we make excuses?

I would like to think my intentions are always pretty good, but I know my actions are sometimes less so. That can come from fatigue, inattention, or just plain stupidity.

Rather than compound the problem by denying one has done something wrong, it seems better to own up to it and make whatever amends are possible. In this case, it meant recognizing I had taken someone’s parking space, vacating it as quickly and as safely as possible, and signaling my apology as gracefully as I could.

I don’t know what she thought about it – if anything at all. I just know that as I crossed the street she and her friends went about their business without so much as a wave or a by-your-leave, and that’s OK.

The smallest kindness can work wonders in this, God’s valley, even if no one notices.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Stepping Lively in the Valley

Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more … (or) to make God love us less. Philip Yancey

I had the pleasure of taking in a clergy conference near Prescott, Arizona recently. During the course of the conference I learned that people are encouraged to maintain physical fitness for their health and well-being. That sure made sense until they suggested that a fitness regimen might include such things as walking or doing things.

It was even suggested that a person ought to strive to get in 10,000 steps each day and, to indicate how serious they were that we should do so, the conference leaders even gave us each a small pedometer to wear on our belts. Well, I can certainly belt out a tune, but was highly offended that they would try to make us walk more by giving us such a tawdry bribe as that.

I assured them that I am as fit as a fiddle, although I wouldn’t want to play any fiddle that was built like me – and I certainly don’t want anyone pulling my strings. It’s bad enough when they push my buttons.

Anyway, I have tried wearing the pedometer with me wherever I go and have discovered that it is extremely limited; it seems not to be aware of how much work I do at my desk.

I may not be active in the academic sense of the word, but certainly I get quite a bit of exercise. I jump to conclusions; I punch out sermons; I take a Leap of Faith getting up each morning; I run my mouth every day of the week and twice on Sundays. All that has GOT to count for something, doesn’t it?

But my poor pedometer just doesn’t understand my kind of activity. It is very imperfect that way. In fact, I sometimes have to shake it just so I can read the display – and need I tell you there is a bit of exercise involved in just sucking in my six pack abs so I can see that tiny little device down there on my belt. What’s THAT all about? Shouldn’t they have designed a larger pedometer just so the walker could look svelte in comparison? Where the heck was their Marketing Team when THAT design came down for review?

Well, the fact is that maybe I could stand to be a bit more active. While I do have abs of steel, the steel is more like the soup that sloshes around in the bowl at the smelter than the hardened variety one finds at the end of the line. Perhaps it is time to examine my physical regimen more carefully and begin adjusting my work-a-day habits so as to involve a bit more movement.

Why should I take better care of my body? Well, for one thing, it’s the only one I’ve got.

I’ve got plenty of clothes I can change into if I get wet or dirty, but I’ve only got this one carcass. It’s got to last until I’m done with it. So there is that.

For another thing, it’s a gift from God. How I treat it indicates to some degree just what I think of the giver, eh? If I toss a gift into a drawer and forget it, or never use it or wear it, that says something.

The best way to say “thank you” is to put the gift to work for its intended purpose. We don’t strut our stuff for the world to ogle at; stepping lively is simply a friendly wave to God above – a simple thanks to our God of love.

I think one’s spiritual life is like that, too.

To be spiritually fit requires spiritual exercises, such as getting up and going to church, breaking open the Bible (and reading it), praying, and finding things to do that promote the peace and well-being of the community.

It has nothing to do with being better than one another – morally superior or any of that guff. It has to do with recognizing we are spiritual beings as much as physical beings, and all things work together for those who love God, and who are called according to God’s purpose – and that purpose is grace, forgiveness, and walking peaceably with God and neighbor in this, our valley.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Hooked in the Valley

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken – Oscar Wilde

I went to visit a parishioner the other day. When I approached her house I was greeted by a swarm of flying critters. It turns out they were salmon flies (or a close relative), and the good news is they aren’t carnivorous – otherwise I would have been a goner in a matter of seconds.

I have no idea what they were doing around her house. She doesn’t live all that close to the river and her house isn’t blue, so it didn’t make sense for the creatures to be swarming her home the way they did. I was surprised the fish didn’t leave the stream to go chasing after those protein-rich wing-dings, but such is life.

I karate chopped my way through them and it turned out to be good exercise. Even though they aren’t a biting insect, they were quite pesky. When I was done with my visit I remembered I had left my truck windows down partially (as it was warm) and was afraid I would have to do battle with those rascally varmints while I was “on the fly”, but fortunately only one of the beasties had bothered to enter the truck, and she left when she saw me climb in. I suppose I wasn’t her type, although I did “shag flies” as a kid back in the day.

The flies helped explain the sudden influx of outdoor-types to our local eatery. I had gone in for our usual church-men’s breakfast at Yesterday’s CafĂ© and the place was packed. I had no idea who the strangers were, and upon reflection they certainly did look like folks who would delight in walking the length, breadth, and depths of the Madison  River in rubber waders in hopes of snagging some aquatic denizens of the finned variety.

Why anyone would choose to stand on a riverbank or in the river while being swarmed by bugs is beyond me. I confess I just don’t “get” angling. As a child, I enjoyed fishing Puget Sound with my brother. We were always catching something – rock cod, flounders, soles, dogfish, and the like – so we were never bored, but neither did we eat what we caught. The quality of marine life from the Sound wasn’t all that trustworthy, so we just tossed them back (and they no doubt thanked Poseidon for the grace extended “to” them – and for not having grace said “over” them).

I am reminded of Jesus once saying to some of his early disciples, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Of course, folks in his day didn’t use hooks, lines, reels, and casting rods; they used nets.

I’m sure Jesus wasn’t thinking of Catch and Cook (or even Catch and Release), but intended the metaphor to go deeper than that. Otherwise the world – like any trout worth its salt – would be wise to be cautious.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about how people interpret that Fishers of Men imagery.

“You catch ‘em, God cleans ‘em” goes the old bumper sticker, but that doesn’t sound all that inviting, does it?

It’s as if what’s meant is that God intends to gut you and eat you, hmmm? I know it is a play on words (clean, as in wash up, versus clean as gutting and boning), and yet it makes it sound like we “believers” can’t believe God can stand the sight or smell of you until God’s had a chance to fix you up, and that hardly qualifies as “Good News” (i.e. Gospel).

Jesus said, “God loves you.” He didn’t add strings or fine print to the deal.

I think churches, like the kingdom of God, should be places where people can come to be fed – not to become the main course; where people can find joy and happiness – not be objects of judgment or ridicule; where people can live into their passions – not just fit into slots.

Maybe Jesus, who said, “This is my Body, eat; this is my Blood, drink,” was suggesting we should be flies – not hooks – drawing all people from out of the depths, providing safe haven for all who’re floundering, as well as food and drink for the nourishment soul and body.

The fish are hungry and God has given us wings; that’s how it should be in this, our valley.